Grad builds dreams on an acre
Updated: Saturday, July 31, 2010 8:19 AM
Starting small, OSU alumnus Travis Cook aims to be Baker County's first vintner
By ANNA WILLARD
When one envisions agriculture in northeastern Oregon's picturesque Baker County, hay fields and cattle ranches typically come to mind. Definitely not vineyards and wineries.
Unless you're Travis Cook.
With his parents' help, the 25-year-old Baker County native aims to run his own vineyard and winery northeast of Baker City in Keating, Ore.
Since 2004 he has planted about an acre, and plans to plant two more acres next year. Cook has planted five varieties: Syrah, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Riesling and Conoice. He harvested his first crop in 2007 and is applying for state and federal government approval to market his wine to consumers.
But he faces challenges that his counterparts west of the Cascades don't have to contend with. For starters, there's a short growing season, which can lead to early frosts. He's also not able to graft vines because they freeze. Grafting is done to make the vines resistant to phylloxera, a soil parasite that kills vines. When grafted vines freeze, they die all the way back to the ground, Clive Kaiser, extension horticulturist from Oregon State University, said.
"Grafting has to be done in the field and is incredibly time-consuming," Kaiser said.
Since the summers in Eastern Oregon are also hot and dry, there is the potential to lose his irrigation water sooner than he would like.
For now, Cook has a day job to get him through the startup phase. He's a vineyard manager at Advanced Vineyard Systems on the west side of the state in McMinnville, where he lives with his wife, Krista. The company manages 19 vineyards and works with about 30 wineries. Cook, who used to work for boutique winery Spindrift Cellars in Philomath, Ore., looks after eight of the vineyards.
"I would like to go back home eventually; within the next five years, probably not," Cook said. "Right now, working with this company is far more valuable for the experience and the contacts."
Cook was raised on a ranch in Keating, where his vineyard and soon-to-be winery are. Since McMinnville and Keating are on opposite sides of the state, he is only able to make four trips a year. So, his family is helping manage the grapes.
"My dad, grandpa and my mom are a pretty integral part as far as being my eyes," Cook said.
After years of raising sheep and cattle, the Cook family sold their animals and established Eagle Cap Nursery, a business they sold to go into the wine business. In the meantime, a wine shop also opened up in Baker City, and his parents became friends with the owner.
"As the relationship developed, so did their palette," Cook said.
The result of that friendship was Cook's appreciation for wine at a young age. The combination of this appreciation and a background in agriculture sparked Cook's interest in learning how to grow grapes and make wine.
To accomplish this goal, in 2003 he packed his bags for Oregon State University, where he majored in horticulture with an emphasis on viticulture and enology.